Yuck. The dreaded question.
But we all get asked it – in the pub, at weddings… in fact any social occasion where we meet new people.
Invariably, sweeping assumptions are made when you utter your reply.
An accountant? No way she could understand poetry, wear bright colours or ever belt out a boisterous Wham! number. An art teacher? Ah sure he’s hopeless with money, a bit dithery and into that whole Green thing. A builder? Uh-oh, watch him –you’ve got a total lad there, mad about football and beer.
It is human nature, and it’s a particular characteristic of this Fair Isle that we categorize and label people based on how they earn their daily bread. We slot them into the category and status that our perception of their profession allows. With speedy precision, we can guess what they earn, where they live and how they socialise. All neatly boxed-up, categorised and filed away. Job done (so to speak).
However, by only focussing on people’s jobs, we’re seeing only a tiny percentage of what they’re about. Such a simplistic view overlooks the fact that everyone has a set of interests, motivations and passions. And if they get to indulge these passions, and even better earn a crust from them, then they are truly the lucky ones.
It’s time to wake up to what we’re missing. Take my office as a prime example. I work in a very structured, regulation-driven environment (not exactly famed for crazy outpourings of creativity). In fact to the outside observer, the office is a melodic typing pool of efficiency. But as I’ve discovered, all is not what it seems. In our midst, we’ve got an artist, a birthday-card designer, a culinary goddess, a cartoonist, a Toastmaster-style orator and of course me, a writer. And now that I know the truth, I see past the restrictive collars and over-starched stances.
See the way Peter holds that pen? Picasso at work. The result of Simon’s distracted doodling? A quirky cartoon worthy of gracing the cover of The New-Yorker. That waft of haute cuisine from the cramped tearoom? Marie’s leftovers from one of her fabulous dinner parties. If it’s your birthday, you’ll find one of Katy’s exquisite cards at your desk. And if anyone leaves, they’ll be treated to a Winston Churchill-esque speech from Bill.
Now ask us at a party what we do, and you’ll never discover these talents. Instead you might be fooled into thinking we were some kind of office drones. (As if!)
So how can you get around this question? Some, to avoid having to discuss their roles at all, use the industry sector as a catch-all by saying they work in telecoms or IT. Others avoid the topic completely, like a friend of mine who says he feels compelled to not actually explain or elaborate what he does. According to him, “so many people either hate or misunderstand it”. Important to add that this guy is not a professional hitman, on the contrary he works in marketing!
True, there are certain professions under fire at the moment. It’s totally understandable as to why some prefer to remain very vague indeed about being a property developer or banker. No one wants to take on the wrath of a nation. Or Trial by Taximan, as my friend calls it after spending 20 minutes apologising for the diminished stock holdings of an irate taxi man.
In the present day, where the rounded individual is lauded and encouraged, we really shouldn’t have to dread, endure or avoid this question. It’s time to wipe it from the Irish vernacular altogether. Let’s put an end to categorisation by job title.
Instead let’s ask “what do you like to do….?”
I guarantee much richer conversations will ensue.